I understand autonomy to me decisions made through reasons and Kant defines virtue as “the moral strength of a human being's will in fulfilling his duty”.

How is autonomy related to virtue?


Direct answer

If you look into the definitions of what an autonomous will and a duty are, the answer becomes obvious. In the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Kant writes:

Morality is thus the relation of actions to the autonomy of the will, that is, to the possible universal legislation through its maxims. An action that can be consistent with the autonomy of the will is permissible; one that does not agree with it is impermissible. [...] The dependence on the principle of autonomy of a will that is not absolutely good (moral necessitation) is obligation. [...] The objective necessity of an action from obligation is called duty. (4:439)

In other words: The action of an autonomous will is what is called moral and acting according to "the principle of autonomy of a will" (the categorical imperative) is what is called duty. This means nothing less than that it is moral to fulfil one's duties and fulfilling one's duties means acting morally. Autonomy (of the will) and acting morally, as we have seen, are again basically saying the same things.

Therefore, to fulfil one's duties, acting morally, and autonomy (of the will - but this is the only one there is) are one and the same thing.

Now, looking at the definition of virtue, it becomes clear that it is about having the strength of will to actually follow the principle of autonomy, i.e. be autonomous - which is the same as saying "fulfilling his duty" or acting morally. Hence "moral" strength of the will.

Different concepts of the will - alternative explanation

Possible misunderstandings may occur due to his ambiguous use of the term "will" here. Sometimes, it stands for the whole of the faculty of appetite [Begehrungsvermögen], sometimes only for practical reason, i.e. the legislative part of the will that gives it the practical rules and imperatives. I am not aware of any English source discussing this difference as clearly as Timmermann, J. (2003): Sittengesetz und Freiheit, p.146 (German).

Considering this, it becomes clear that the picture regarding virtue is that "the will" (the whole of the faculty of appetite) can - given the strength of will needed - choose to act according to the "principle of autonomy of the will", which is given to it by (pure) practical reason, i.e. so to speak its "rights department" where duties are determined. Only if "the will" does so, the human being fulfils the duties, i.e. realises autonomy.


Thus, virtue is again about acting morally and realising autonomy (of the will). On the other hand, it mentions the practical struggles in acting morally and does not only analyse/define formally what it means to act morally but essentially is about the ability of a particular human to actually do this.

A virtuous person is one that does act morally (realise autonomy) since she has the strength of will that it takes to do so.

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